Featured: This Is What It's Like To Join An Alfa Romeo GTA Race Team For A Weekend At The Track

This Is What It’s Like To Join An Alfa Romeo GTA Race Team For A Weekend At The Track

Laura Kukuk By Laura Kukuk
November 8, 2018
1 comments

Photography by Laura Kukuk

Unless you know someone who attends or live nearby, you probably haven’t heard of the Algarve Classic Festival, but if you follow modern motorsport the three-miles of asphalt it takes place on may be more familiar. The Algarve International Circuit in  Portimão, Portugal is a potential future Formula 1 venue and has played host to everything from superbikes to LMP1 prototypes since its completion in 2008, and it is regarded as a highly challenging and highly rewarding “drivers’ circuit.”

The three-day Algarve Classic Festival offers its competitors a ton of track time on this wonderful ribbon on Portgual, and even if you aren’t the one driving, being part of a team here is a weekend well spent. And what’s a better way to explore the festival than joining a  great group of people celebrating the glory of Alfa Romeo GTAs? Not much in my book, and that’s why I was beyond happy to have the opportunity from Fernandes Oldtimertechnik to accompany their race weekend.

Taking place in one of Europe’s warmest countries (and close to several beautiful beaches on top of that), the Algarve Classic Festival is, naturally, a pleasant event for everyone involved coming from colder parts of the world. It is also the largest historic car event on the Iberian Peninsula, gathering in each of previous editions more than 300 cars and 500 drivers coming from 23 different countries.

Stirling Moss and Walter Röhrl are just two from a group of great drivers that consider Portimao Circuit as one of the most beautiful and challenging circuits of all time, and I’d say they’ve seen their fair share through the windshield.

I am sitting in box #9 in the pits, listening to engines warming up in the foreground and engines racing in the background, smelling petrol and oil, and watching the team from Fernandes Oldtimertechnik finishing the last of their prep work on their Alfas: a bright yellow GTA, and a grey and red GTAm. I am living the dream this weekend, and could not ask for a better office for the weekend!

Last year I had the opportunity to interview Pedro Fernandes, the founder and owner, and an old friend of mine. He delivered insights into the family-owned business, which he runs together with his wife and two of his three sons. They also have two more mechanics helping out, the small team coping with a huge workload. Today, I would like to take you with me to show a little of the “behind the scenes” of a small vintage race team and preparation shop, along with some insights from the team about what it takes to run GTAs in historic competition.

When I arrived in the morning, the team was almost done setting up the cars when a little curveball was thrown on Thursday afternoon after the last training sessions. The team wasn’t allowed to race their usual Goodyear they’d been practicing on all week. Pedro isn’t phased though. “It is a real shame and puts us back in our progress, but this is racing life, new or old, and we will just have to adjust, we hope the car will not start behaving completely different by the end, you never know.” A Dunlop replacement is sourced and fitted to the cars, but it turns out not to be an easy transition for the grey GTAm in particular, as the car had become too skittish in the rear, making it nearly impossible to corner without some counter-steering. The team quickly sets about modifying the car, lowering it down on the rear to start with.

Before going into the race weekend itself, what follows is a quick background on the cars pictured.

The Cars

The yellow 1965 Alfa Romeo 1600 GTA was prepared by Antoine Rotondi at Conrero, and it has been in Fernandes’ workshop since 2017. Mr. Antoine Rotondi owned the car himself until 1997. Today it’s one of the team’s favorites, and a real heartbreaker to look at on track or off it.

Autodelta, more or less the racing division of Alfa, originally developed the car for competition from the series-105 GT coupes, and named theirs the GTA, with the “A” standing for alleggerita, Italian for “lightweight.” The GTA has aluminum outer body panels instead of steel (the inner steel panels were also of a thinner gauge, and the inner and outer panels were bonded and pop-riveted together), magnesium alloy wheels, clear plastic side windows, aluminum rear upper control arms, and lightweight interior trim (or the outright removal of interior trim). The engine has a dual-ignition cylinder head with a Marelli distributor borrowed from the Ferrari Dino.

Now a little background information on Antoine Rotondi, who prepared this particular GTA, might be in order. Rotondi had an Alfa Romeo garage in Villejuif, just south of Paris, and in the mid 1960s, he was asked by an owner of a GTA, which was prepared by Conrero, to have a look at its engine to see if he could sort out why it wasn’t running well. After removing the engine, Rotondi found a number of peculiar things, and subsequently got in touch with Virgilio Conrero, visiting him on several occasions and spending a lot of time with him (in fact several months’ worth) learning how to prepare these racing Alfas. They became very good friends and Garage Rotondi soon became the official Conrero importer for France. Rotondi, who is still alive, is a complex character and sometimes challenging to deal with. If he is in a good mood, everything is straightforward, but if he is not in good spirits things can turn to hard work rather quickly!

The grey & red Alfa Romeo GTV 1750 (Europa) Typ 105.44 pictured above is known as a GTAm. It builds quite a contrast to the GTA, equipped with a Testastretta motor and a sliding knuckle rear axle. With this kind of equipment, a lot depends on whether the car was prepared as an original Autodelta works vehicle or one for customers. The private teams, as well as Balduzzi, bought spare parts from Autodelta and turned normal street versions of the GTV into the GTAm, mostly starting with the European type 105.44—this car is one of these.

The Race Weekend

Ok, back to the weekend at hand. The yellow GTA is the first one to go out for qualifying on Friday in the early afternoon. It will be competing in the U2TC race against Cortinas, Minis, and many others. It’s a competition in which the GTA will be considered a guest, as it is the only event it is racing in, and therefore doesn’t get counted in the overall results.

Christian Oldendorff, the owner of the beautiful all original GTA, will be racing it for the first time, both for him and the car. Professional racer José Monroy has spent the entire week with the team, coaching Christian on the track, and building up his own connection to the two historic Alfas; driving them will be his premiere racing historic cars. The two cars are handling completely different, as Christian tells me: “I prefer driving the GTAm in its current stage as it is a forgiving car, while the GTA is hard work, it needs strength to race this one.”

There are 11 races in total, but the Alfas will be in just two of them: the Iberian Historic Endurance and the U2TC.

The Iberian Historic Endurance is an organization of gentleman drivers for gentleman drivers, and both races are ruled by FIA’s Appendix K, following the “3 Cs” of sportsmanship: No Crashing. No Cheating. No Complaining. In the mind of the organization and participants, the primary goal is not the fight for victory. The goal of the Historic Endurance is to provide all the participants with a special experience of conviviality, emotion, and nostalgia. This competition gives meaning to the acquisition and possession of a historic racing car, regardless of its class or its power.

The U2TC is something else. A renowned series for pre-1966 sub-2.0L touring cars is considered by many to be the best vintage touring car series in Europe in regards to car preparation and driving standards. U2TC has four events this year, two of which offer two races over the weekend. This race is always one of the most popular among the public, with dozens of Lotus Cortinas, Alfa Romeo Giulias and GTAs, BMW 1800s, and the always restless Mini Cooper S, among others filling up seemingly every inch of track. At the wheels of these cars are some great drivers from the past and present, who perform miracles driving these cars on narrow radial tires.

Qualifying

On Friday morning we are heading to the track after a breakfast overlooking it watching the first practice sessions. The GTA is going out after a short lunch break, and around an hour after finishing, the GTAm is going out for its qualifying.

The problem with the new tires is fixed, the cars are set up accordingly. Marina, the heart of the team and Pedro’s wife, prepares sandwiches and tapas for everyone in the garage. On grid, we find ourselves nearby another GTA 1600, a red one from SEMA Racing. In qualifying, the Cortinas are flying and are setting lap times five seconds faster than ours, and we soon consider them in their own class. In our Alfas, Christian manages to set a time difference of only one second between him and José, an amazing achievement! There is only one Mini faster than us before the group of Cortinas ahead, and we manage to finish ahead of our direct competitor, the red GTA, and place ourselves 5th on the grid after the qualifying session is over.

No one really believed it, and it seems that some didn’t trust that our car was within the rules, so we were promptly put on a scale after the race to measure. Not knowing what the car was actually weighing, Pedro had only ever made educated guesses at it, and we were surprised to find out that the car was actually 60kg too heavy! At first a happy discovery as we didn’t get any penalties, but then of course we would have loved to have removed some weight and made the car even quicker, but we can’t make any modifications now though.

Next up in qualifying was the GTAm, and Christian was really looking forward to finally jumping into this car, as he says “It just handles well, I know what to expect and I can fully concentrate on the field of cars around me and the track.”

Whereas the GTA was setting times in the low 2:20s, the GTAm made constant laps in the 2:19s. This amazing achievement from Christian and José, together with the smooth pitstops of the team, resulted in disbelief from the other teams, again, and we ended up back on the scale with a different car—this time with a rather dissatisfying result. We were 45kg below the homologation weight of 920kg, a disaster. The car had never been on a scale before, no one ever believed it would be too light, rather way too heavy, and now this! A big discussion with “Moses,” the head of scrutineering, ensues. It resulted in us modifying the car and adding at least 50kg of weight. That was something we could live with, but we also had to start from a lower position tomorrow for the race.

To keep the team motivated, Christian suggested to get some ice cream and shortly after we were all happily eating Calippo in parc fermé, waiting for our car to be released before we started adding 63kg (better safe than sorry), weights we borrowed from the local cart track, to the lowest point of the car—at least we would be able to keep the center of gravity low…

Later we find various other teams and race drivers leaning over our cars, inspecting them thoroughly, trying to understand why these were so quick, what was different about them. Some drivers even asked whether there is a possibility they can apply for support from Fernandes Oldtimertechnik for next year’s race season!

We finished around 10PM in the paddock, agreeing to add the last few weights to the car in the morning.

The Main Events

It’s race day soon enough, and after our early morning wakeup and trip to the track, we have arrived in our box to find one of the scrutineering assistants arriving to hand us an official letter saying that we must now start the race from the last position… It’s a message we weren’t keen to receive, but we decided to make the most of it and race like nothing happened—what else can you do?

“I am a little nervous, it’s a crowded field and a flying start isn’t easy from the back, but I will follow the mantra of ‘just have fun, enjoy the race,’” Christian says as he gets in the car before the start.

The driver change runs smooth as anything; however, we get a penalty for leaving the box too quickly, and José therefore needs to come back in for a 30 second penalty. Then, again, we received another 30 seconds for speeding in the pits…  However, the results weren’t bad, and we managed to finish 7th in our grid.

Next race is our second and final race for the day, the GTAm is up, and Christian is pumped enough to get in the driver’s seat first, again. Starting from the back with 60kg added to the car in total, it will be more than challenging. We started off in 50th position and Christian was on fire, racing himself up to 25th in the smallest amount of time. It was incredible to watch him weaving up through the field lap after lap.

Then, the unexpected, an oil leak is in front of him, and off he goes, spinning 180 degrees. Within the next few seconds a Datsun crashes into him and another car goes off as well, a big crash, but luckily all drivers are ok—the cars not so much.

All it matters though is that Christian is ok. He gets dropped off by a marshal on a scooter and still has the biggest smile on his face: “I loved it, every second, I was on fire and did you see me climbing up spaces?” We can’t believe it, he is happier than ever, and luckily in good health too. “Sure, the accident is still in my bones, but there are far worse, and it was just simply amazing before that!”

Everyone else has a big smile on their face now, all of us exhausted but happy. Although the team experienced many setbacks and the couldn’t race on Sunday with the GTAm after its accident, it still very much felt like the hard work had paid off in the end. This is how Pedro, the team chief, summarized the weekend: “We are beyond happy with the week we had on the Portimao Autodromo Circuito. We could tune both race GTA’s during the first two days of testing and optimize them for the track. This resulted in a track best time of an incredible 2:14:32 min. The race weekend was exciting & challenging, as we needed to make some adjustments and modify the cars after the scrutineering. Some of these resulted in adjustment of both cars, distancing them from their top performance capabilities, but still able to achieve results as some of the quickest cars in their categories.”

His team adds, “The Circuito International de Algarve is a very demanding and difficult track, but it has given us great pleasure to tune and optimize the vehicles for it. We have great pleasure in working together as a team, and have had many events and years of practice together. Everyone on the team knows their job, their level of expertise, and acts accordingly. Therefore optimal technical adjustments can be realized in the smallest possible amount of time and bring an optimum of performance to the driver and car. In other words, it’s a great bit of fun that we get to call our job.”

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Are those tire warmers in that first picture, LOL!